Don Bishop - February 13, 1955 Imogene Coca and Ralph in "Witness for the Prosecution"
[View Scan Version]

Tar Heel in N.Y.
Salisbury Man Has Role of a Cop In Agatha Christie’s New Play

By Don Bishop
Special to The Journal and Sentinel

NEW YORK, Feb. 12 – On stage and off, Ralph Roberts, formerly of Salisbury, N.C., is busy these days "manhandling" people.

At Henry Miller’s Theatre, in his perennial role of a policeman, Roberts restrains Gene Lyons, who is showing occasional violence as the prisoner before the bar in "Witness for the Prosecution," the Agatha Christie hit thriller which stars Francis L. Sullivan.

At other times, in real life, Roberts has built up a profitable business as a private masseur to many stars of the entertainment world. He gives them 45-minute massages, daily, weekly, or when called, and prepares them for the rigors of rehearsals and performances.

For example, each night after the curtain rings down on "Witness for the Prosecution," he rushes over to the apartment of Imogene Coca and her husband and gives the comedienne a relaxing massage. On show day, three Saturdays out of four, he goes to her theatre for a treatment in between his own appearances at matinee and evening.

Other showbusiness persons who look to Roberts for massages are Milton Berle, Red Buttons, Judy Holliday, Eddie Albert, Allyn McLerie, Agnes de Mille, and when he is in New York, Burr Tillstrom of "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" fame.

They learned about him through word of mouth, Roberts said. His fame has spread so widely that he is confronted with a problem of turning away business. He prefers to retain his identity as an actor and to use the masseur work to fill the gaps in his purse that an acting career is likely to induce until he hits the real pay dirt.

Consequently, he limits his business to an average of five or six massages a day.

Roberts’ customers have ranged in cycles, he said. He started with dancers only, the first being Miss McLerie when she was starring in "Miss Liberty." After the dancers came a procession of musicians.

"Then, strangely, there was a whole group of psychoanalysts, of all people," he recalled. When the radio soap opera queens felt the hot breath of television blowing upon them, many of them came to him to work off tell-tale inches of hips, etc., Roberts said, discreetly omitting any names.

His current customers are mostly comedians, with several holdovers from the past groups. Roberts, a husky 215-pounder looming six feet three inches into the air, said he uses a variation of the Swedish system of massaging. He was trained at the Swedish Institute of Physiotherapy.

Roberts, son of H.K. Roberts of Salisbury, was an honor graduate of Salisbury High School and attended Catawba College. He volunteered for Army service in 1940 and rose to rank of major, becoming General Joseph Stilwell’s personnel officer in the China-Burma theatre. He was called back to active duty during the Korean War and now holds the reserve rank of lieutenant colonel.

Roberts’ acting career has been strongly weighted towards roles as policemen and sailors. In seven appearances on stage, he has been an officer of the law in four of them and a seafaring man in three. He appeared in two movies, MGM’s "Dial 1119" (as a truck driver) and the Ginger Rogers vehicle, "The Groom Wore Spurs" (as a reporter). He has made frequent television appearances, including several on the "Robert Montgomery Presents" dramatic program.

Like many other thespian, Roberts isn’t content to let his acting be limited to what he does on the stage of the play that pays his salary. He is constantly studying acting in his free time. A person of boundless energy, the 34-year-old actor also attends classes in ballroom dancing and in speaking and writing French.

If there’s any time left after all that, he treats himself to a massage – by some other masseur, of course.